It turns out there are a number of quick and easy ways for working out what is in the night sky for any time and place, including:
- What planets are visible
- Whether you can see the Milky Way
- Whether the ISS or satellites will be flying over your location
Read on to find out some of the best, easiest and free ways for working this out.
What’s in the Night Sky Tonight?
There are a lot of variables at play in working out what might be above you in the night sky tonight (and at what time and direction).
The easiest way is therefore to use a digital platform (website or mobile app) that takes into account your location and date and provides a picture of the night sky for you.
We recommend the website and mobile app Stellarium as the easiest way to do this.
If you go to the website or open the app on your phone (and allow auto-location), it will provide a picture of the night sky for where you are.
In the image below you can see the example from my location:
You can explore times and direction, but in this screenshot you can see that when facing South-West at around 4am on 5th September 2020 I was able to see:
- The Milky Way core
- The planets of Saturn and Jupiter
- A moon that is fairly full
You can adjust what you see to take account of the atmosphere and light pollution where you are, as well as being able to add things like visible deep sky objects.
It also has a night mode so that you can use the app or site when out in the night without ruining your night vision.
What planets are visible tonight?
Stellarium also provides an at-a-glance overview of what planets will be visible in the night sky for you tonight, as well as the times that they will be visible from and to:
Using the desktop or mobile app, you will be able to find out where you should be looking in the skies tonight to help you locate them.
Is the Milky Way visible tonight?
The Milky Way’s core will be visible at different times depending on which half of the world you are in. Milky Way season is:
- Northern Hemisphere: March to October, but best April to July
- Southern Hemisphere: February to October, but best in June and July
Stellarium is again a great source of information for what time and where in the sky it might be visible tonight.
As you can see in the screenshot from my phone below, using the app I can see that around 10pm tonight the Milky Way core will be visible from my location in the southern skies:
What is tonight’s sky chart?
Using the option on Stellarium to make the star constellations visible, you can see tonight’s sky chart from your location:
Can I see the ISS tonight?
The easiest way to find out if the International Space Station (ISS) will be passing overhead tonight is to use an app like ISS Detector.
It takes your location and tells you when the ISS will next be visible. For me, as of today, it will next be overhead in six days at 20:21 on 10th September 2020:
For other satellites, the app Heavens Above provides a great overview of what will be passing over you and when.
As you can see in the screenshot below, there will be multiple StarLink satellites passing over me in my location from 20:20 onwards:
Are the conditions good for stargazing tonight?
A hugely important factor in whether you will actually be able to see any of these things in the night sky are the conditions, including weather, light pollution, and moon phase.
There are some great apps and resources for helping you with this and ensuring you don’t waste time on nights when there is no chance of clear skies.
Will I have clear skies tonight?
There are some great apps that give you valuable information on the cloud and weather conditions for you tonight from your location.
Nightshift is one:
An alternative that we like is Clear Outside.
It’s not as easy to read from a glance, but provides much more detailed information about conditions and timings for any location and time.
How is the light pollution from where I am tonight?
See our article on light pollution to understand more about this.
What phase is the moon tonight?
The moon shining brightly may or may not be something you are looking for.
On the one hand, it is awesome to see a bright, full moon. On the other hand, a bright moon works to prevent the sky from getting too dark and then can impede viewing opportunities.
This is especially relevant for trying to photograph things like the Milky Way which is only really visible with the naked eye from very dark sky locations and with no moon in the sky.
We use the PhotoPills app for information on the moon for any one night:
You can see from the screenshot above that it tells you that from Denver, Colorado on the night of 5th September 2020, the moon will be at 89% and will rise at 21:23.
You can also see ahead that the next time the moon will be fully dark (a new moon) from this location will be 17th September 2020.
What’s in the night sky this month and in the future?
If you are interested in looking ahead at what might be coming up as a viewing opportunity then there are a number of good sources.
Alyn Wallace’s monthly video series of what’s in the night sky provides a really useful look ahead for stargazers.
He essentially uses Stellarium to run through the coming month and adds expert commentary which is really useful for most beginners and even more experienced astronomers:
There are other YouTube channels that do similar things, but we like Alyn’s the best (see the best astrophotography channels to follow on YouTube).
Over to you – how do you assess what’s in the night sky?
We hope you found this article helpful. You’ll probably gather from reading this article that we are big fans of Stellarium and that it is our main go-to source for assessing what’s in the night sky tonight.
The bonus is that it is available free (with a paid premium option that unlocks some more advanced features) and so we don’t hesitate to recommend it.
If there are other methods that you use, please share in the comments below for other readers.
If you are interested in taking photos of the night sky then you might also be interested in our guide to the best apps for astrophotography.